For most writers, pen and paper is where the imagination starts putting down its roots. Blogs and word processing applications, despite being feature-rich, just don't have the fundamental abilities of pen on paper -- that is, they aren't as versatile, intuitive, and conducive to the editing process. In an effort to shed some light on the appeal of traditional implements, I will take a closer look at various famous writers, and their favorite tools of the trade.
It's no surprise that stoic novelist Ernest Hemingway liked to begin his projects with a humble wooden pencil -- something traditional, relatively masculine, and minimal. He was as economical with graphite as he was with words, favoring mechanical sharpeners over pocket knives for their superior efficiency. If the juices were flowing and the writing went quickly, then he would transition from fluid handwriting (which often lacked even basic pauses such as punctuation and capitals) to the staccato rhythm of a typewriter. Pencils were also a key component in Hemingway's process of editing and re-writing -- he stated that "If you write with a pencil, you get three different sights at [your story]... First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof." As a medium, it's exceptionally well suited for the chaotic beginnings of any essay, short story, or sketch.
More recently, Hemingway has been associated with a famous notebook brand based in Italy -- Moleskine! Moleskine's manufacturer Modo & Modo claims that the iconic black notebook is "The Legendary Notebook of Hemingway, Picasso and Chatwin." Through the years, these powerful names have lent an air of mystique and magic to Moleskine's high-quality, but otherwise ordinary, notebooks. However, Moleskine's marketing department has since qualified its claim, admitting that the link to Hemingway is "an exaggeration" and "marketing, not science." Hemingway was using notebooks that merely looked similar to Moleskine notebooks. But even without the big-name endorsement, Moleskine notebooks are making their way into homes and hearts all around the world -- perhaps if Hemingway were still around, he'd agree to try a sample!
Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Stardust, American Gods) is an
author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. He's also an avid fountain pen fiend with an impressive collection that includes the classic Waterman 52 Fountain Pen, the unique
crowd-sourced TWSBI Diamond 530 Fountain Pen, and a selection of rare flexible nibs.
In the age of apps for everything (iAWriter and My Writing Nook come to mind), Gaiman chooses to write novels armed with only a fountain pen. For Stardust (256 pages), he purchased a number of
heavy blank volumes bound in leather and proceeded to fill them with endless rows of crooked letters. His decision to embrace tactile writing tools turned out to be a significant one. "I think it really changed the way I wrote it. You think about the sentence more before you write it. On a computer, it’s almost like throwing down a blob of clay and then molding it a bit. But I can’t do that with a fountain pen, so I think about it a little more." American Gods (480 pages) was written with the refined, Bauhaus-style Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen.
Of course, high-quality inks are required to accompany these top-notch fountain pens -- it would be no less than a complete and utter tragedy if that autograph scrawled across your rare first print of Sandman #2 were to smudge or fade. To this end, Gaiman likes Parker's Quink, a fast-drying and always dependable ink choice. He also recommends Private Reserve's Black Cherry and Copper Burst Inks, which feel like they'd be more at home on the page of one of Gaiman's comic books -- both have that strange and whimsical tone that permeates his stories.
At any given time it was more likely than not that Kerouac would be on the road, so he kept some portable writing tools in case inspiration struck (it often did, as evidenced by his prolific, frantic stream-of-consciousness prose). Kerouac was a fanatical devotee of the pocket notebook, which he used for jotting down notes. Later, Kerouac noted that the size of the notebook influenced his poems -- he liked that "The form of blues choruses is limited by the small page." Perhaps his poems would have felt lost on a larger page. Surprisingly, a substantial portion of his pocket notebooks were actually devoted not to poetry or observations, but to games of fantasy baseball that he meticulously crafted and played... with himself.
Like Hemingway, Gaiman, and Kerouac, Rowling prefers to write a first draft using pen and paper. She isn't terribly picky, preferring black ink to blue, and "narrow feint" (college ruled with faint blue lines) paper. Armed with a mastery of longhand, Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a number of comfortable cafes. After getting started, she would transcribe the draft into her computer for editing and finalization.
One of her handwritten plot charts (contradictorily written in blue ink) details the underpinnings of Book 5, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. For visually oriented writers that prefer to organize their ideas like Rowling does, there is nothing as versatile and free-form as pen and paper.
There is something intensely personal and unique about writing with pen or pencil -- handwriting style, ink color, and notebook choice all vary wildly from writer to writer, yet combine to form a coherent picture of how the writer thinks and works. Jack Kerouac valued spontaneous and personal writing, so he kept pocket notebooks (many of which were published in Visions of Cody) to detail his daily experiences. J.K. Rowling, who created a sprawling magical world with plot threads spanning seven books, preferred a tightly organized chart to keep things consistent.
Each writer has a toolkit, and if the toolkit is good and well chosen, it augments creativity and enables the writer's process to flow. Hopefully the writers we've highlighted above will give you some ideas for your own toolkit. More ideas can be found at our Writers' Workshop Selection Guide.